Why it’s great being a writer (even when it’s not)

People say all the time that you have to be crazy if you want to be a writer. Most of the people saying this are other writers. If you wonder why, take a look at my week.

First–good news!–I found out the wonderful Molly Lee chose me to be her Pitch Wars alternate! I buzzed on this high for days, especially when I learned she fought off another mentor to get me.  This means I’ll get her feedback on my pitch and have a spot in the alternate showcase–a chance to get some more exposure and maybe catch the eye of an agent.

On the down side, I got rejection letters for two separate projects I’m trying to get published. Rejection is part of the process of trying to find the right home for your work, but that doesn’t make them sting any less. Of course, writers aren’t supposed to take things personally. Publishing is a business, after all. Even a stack of rejections doesn’t necessarily mean our work is bad, just that we haven’t found the right agent or editor. But we’re human. It still feels like a kick in the gut.

Then I found out that the Mormon History Association included an article I published last year in Pioneer magazine, “Growing the Kingdom: Mormon Pioneer Gardens,” in their “Book Notices/Selected Articles.” So, again, I feel pretty cool. It turned my week into a cycle of “I’m awesome! I suck. I’m awesome! I suck.”

Dealing with those ups and downs can be rough, especially because there are usually more downs than ups. Stack on top of that the fact that the majority of writers don’t make enough money to give up our day jobs, even when we do get published. In the meantime, we’re doing all this for the love of the craft, stealing hours from sleep or other pastimes to get our work done–writing, editing, critiquing, blogging, tweeting, querying, entering contests, reading, researching. All the while there are plenty of people rolling their eyes when we say we want to be authors, telling us to stop wasting our time.

I’ve asked myself why I’m doing this. Why I give up other things I enjoy–things that might even bring a steady income–to slave away over my computer and collect stacks of reject letters. At the heart of it, I keep going because I love writing too much to quit.

Aside from that, I’ve thought of some other things that make writing great, no matter which stage you’re at or what your ultimate goals are for your writing:

  • Everything is research. Seriously. Rereading your favorite book is research. So is going to a movie, playing with your kids, clicking endless links about food in 6th century China, working in the garden, having the flu, people watching, shooting a black powder musket, staring at clouds. If you’re paying attention, everything teaches you more about life and makes your writing better.
  • Writers can ask the strangest questions and get away with it. I was working on a scene where a character finds a bone (possibly human) and tries to use it as part of an escape plan, but I wasn’t sure if the scene was feasible. So, I went to the butcher ‘s counter and told him I needed a bone about the size of a human arm bone. The guy looks at me, at my two little kids smiling happily in the shopping cart, and raises an eyebrow. I add, “I’m a writer. It’s research for a book.” He relaxes and smiles. “Oh, all right. I have something that should work.” Now there’s nothing weird about it at all. Decomposition rates? How to make gun powder? The color ether produces when it burns? They’re all fair game.
  • In the balance between consuming and creating, writers are adding more to the world, contributing to the great dialogue of what it means to live and be human. At best, writers share their ideas with others, but at the very least they explore them themselves. Writing teaches you to look and think about things differently, including yourself.
  • When you get serious about writing, you reach out to others in the writing world, whether looking for feedback or advice or people who want to read or publish your work. This is a network of awesome people. Sure, you’ll find some you don’t get along with, but overall this is a great community to be involved in.

So, if writing is your thing, don’t give up on it. It’ll drag you up and down, but  there’s a lot to learn from the ride. Your goals may change over time, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You’re way ahead of the people who never try. (This pep talk is mostly for me during the down times, but you’re welcome to listen in 😉 ).

Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and psychologist, said, “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself …”

Making money from your writing hobby

This post isn’t about making a full-time living as an author or writer. The only time I’ve been able to support myself solely on my writing income was when I was single and sharing living expenses with several roommates, but I’ve been able to supplement my income by writing, and worked on some fun and interesting projects in the process. Every freelance writer probably finds his or her own path to success, but here are some things that worked for me:

Develop a niche. It all comes back to “write what you know.” There are a lot of good writers out there, so you have to set yourself apart. I have graduate degrees in history and landscape architecture—a strange combination, but it gives me a unique and profitable set of skills. You don’t need an advanced degree to create a niche. Whether you love nature photography, or video games, or the mating habits of moths, if you focus on the things you know and feel passionate about, you’ll carve out your own space as a writer.

Network. Your niche is what you know, but who you know really does matter too. Tell people you’re a writer and you’re looking for work. Sometimes we’re shy to step up and say, “I want to write,” but once people know you have a talent for and interest in writing, you’ll start to find opportunities coming your way.

Put the “free” back in freelance. While your goal is to get paid, it doesn’t hurt to do pick up some volunteer projects on the side, maybe for local charitable organizations or other causes that pique your interest. It’s a great way to hone your skills and try new things, and it lets you meet people who may have paid work for you later.

Use social media. Start a blog, twitter account, or Facebook page devoted to more than sharing cute photos of kittens or what you had for lunch. Focus on your niche and connect with other people who share your interests. You can get paid for blogging, whether it be maintaining a successful blog yourself or writing content for the blog of an organization, but a professional-looking blog is also a chance to get your name out there.

Be professional. Even if you’re doing a job for free, or just maintaining a blog for yourself, always make it your best work. Think before hitting the “post” or “send” button. Proofread, or even better, have someone else proofread for you. Be honest—your reputation will make or break you, and you can’t afford to have people distrust you. Keep good records for your taxes; hopefully you’ll have some additional income to report at the end of the year.

Approach your writing with self-discipline. Writers are quirky creatures. We’re creative folks who often don’t conform well to regular schedules and chafe at routine. Because so much of writing happens unsupervised, though, it’s especially important for writers to be able to sit down and make themselves work. It can help to have a set time and place for writing, or just a general goal to write X number of hours a day, or break a project down into steps so it will be done by the deadline. Whatever method works for you, you have to love writing enough to be willing and able to follow through. Unfinished projects are the bane of a writer’s career, and will quickly dry up any potential work you might get from annoyed clients.

Try new things. Keep an eye out for writing jobs, even the part-time or temporary ones (which will be most of them). I’ve written everything from video scripts to field trip guides, and I’ve had a blast doing all of it. Some of the projects stretched and challenged me, but each one taught me new skills and opened further doors for me. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but also know your limits. Don’t take on a project if you know you don’t have the time or skills to complete it, and if you run into problems you honestly can’t solve, bring them to the attention of your clients as soon as possible so you can find a professional solution.

Most freelance writers don’t get rich, but if you follow these suggestions, you can turn your talent into a fun and profitable side job and pave the way for future successes as a writer.